By By 1st Lt. Kat Kaliski, 166th Aviation Brigade, Division West, Public AffairsApril 22, 2013
FORT HOOD, Texas - What do you do when your helicopter crashes, and armed civilians are rapidly approaching and firing small arms fire in your direction? In this instance, your ability to make speedy decisions, as well as quickly employ your communication gear is of life or death consequence.
The 166th Aviation Brigade, in its training of mobilized Army National Guard and Reserve units, tests and retests such skills in a practical application setting in its personnel recovery lanes at North Fort Hood.
The brigade's 3rd Battalion, 383rd Aviation Regiment from St. Louis traveled to North Fort Hood to train and prepare Company C, 1st Battalion, 168th General Support Aviation Battalion (medevac), a National Guard unit from California. Comprised of members from California, Washington and Nevada, the 168th is set to deploy to Afghanistan in the weeks ahead.
Sgt. 1st Class John Steffey, of the Brigade's 1st Battalion, 383 Aviation Regiment out of Des Moines, Iowa, along with 1st Lt. Jamie Battle of the 3-383, teamed as observer/controllers for one of the 20 groups practicing the downed aircraft scenario.
Steffey said the training is like a "mini Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school" for the soldiers to practice preparing their aircraft for destruction (to keep it out of the enemy's hands), employment of the specialized Combat Survivor Evader Locator Radio, breaking enemy contact, and land navigation.
Traversing the Texas Hill Country in Gatesville, small four-soldier teams tread as quickly and quietly as possible in the same gear they would wear in a combat zone while using hand and arm signals to communicate with each another.
Meanwhile, opposition forces, replicated by members of 166th Aviation Brigade, lurk in the brush waiting to compromise the friendly force's position at any given moment -- adding further mission challenges.
The goal is to successfully evade capture, employ their essential equipment, and hone procedures that may have gathered dust.
To ensure safe evacuation, each member of the team implements the techniques they learned the previous day in class, such as authentication, changing frequencies, proper placement of the antenna, manually inputting GPS points, and sending and receiving messages.
In addition to the practical application and team building, a key take-away, according to 1st Lt. Servando Maldonado, a team leader for Company C, 1st Battalion, 168 GSAB (medevac), is getting accustomed to your gear - what you need, what you can do without, and how to arrange it so you can move expeditiously over a sustainable period of time.
Maldonado, as the leader of this group, and facing his forth-upcoming deployment, made sure to check that everyone had all of their gear before they left the crash sight.
Maldonado has his Ranger tab, and graduated from the very prestigious SERE school. Despite his good-faith efforts, his seat belt jammed, and with the role-playing enemy fast approaching, he, of all people, left his bag in the helicopter as they ran for cover.
"Even leaders need to be checked," said Maldonado.
The teams are generally comprised of a typical Army aircrew (two pilots and two crew chiefs). Before beginning the exercise, they receive a mock pre-flight brief, and conduct team briefings similar to how they would in combat.
Once they have experienced the simulated crash sequence and prepared their aircraft for destruction, the team sets out to evade enemy detection and achieve extraction by a friendly force. Teams designate an individual on the compass, one to monitor the radio, and another to provide first aid.
While an actual incident might take days for the aircrew to reach safety, this exercise lasts approximately only three hours but ensures that every soldier is familiar with the equipment, techniques and procedures that could serve them well on their worst day.
Twenty teams went through the lanes over two days.
As an observer, Steffey said what he appreciated most was his group's discipline, motivation, and how hands-on they were with the training. One point in particular, which he emphasized to them, is that "you aren't safe even after you've been extracted, so remain vigilant."